Aljamain Sterling Earns Champ-Status (And Our Respect)
So, I guess you were all expecting this video - this Aljamain Sterling-centric piece that will clear some of the air after the relentless jabs I threw at him ever since his capture of the bantamweight title through disqualification.
And for that period of 12 months, it felt right to slag Aljo - to throw in the odd reminder that, while he does hold the belt, there is no argument to be made that he is the legitimate champion.
Now, of course, during fight-week, maybe 2 minutes after I threw a playful jab - I did warn you guys not to underestimate him as a fighter and as a elite bantamweight.
But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t shocked by his performance he turned in during the UFC 273 co-main event - in fact, even if I had some awareness of Aljamain’s talents through his performances outside of that first bout with Yan - I really didn’t expect him to trouble the interim champion that much.
But hey, I was wrong - and when fight night came around - Sterling managed to throw an almighty spanner in the works.
And I love that kind of thing.
The Consistently Unpredictable Sport
When it comes to MMA, it’s usually when we really feel like we’re just going through the motions that an almighty curve ball gets thrown at us.
And in this case, the best division in the sport has brought us one of the most surprising championship-level upsets we’ll see all year.
So what went down?
Well, just for the record - I did score the fight for Sterling - both live and as I rewatched.
Rounds 2 and 3 were solidly in Aljo’s favour - although neither was a 10-8, I don’t buy that - and then 4 and 5 went to Yan - leaving the first round as the decider.
And in very Petr Yan-ish fashion - he was pretty low on output in that first round, controlling the centre of the cage - but doing very little.
So yea, I have the fight 3 rounds to 2 in favour of the champion.
And look, I’ve never been under any illusions about Sterling’s talents as a member of the bantamweight top-5 - I was pretty high on him as a prospect early on - during his original run that only saw him come up short by a pair of split decisions against Brian Caraway and Raphael Assuncao.
That run display a highly athletic fighter - with a strong grappling base and some dynamism in his strikes and particularly his kicks.
And sure, some of the hype cooled off when Marlon Moraes ran through him back in 2017 - but that run of form he went on afterwards - scoring the first Suloev stretch in UFC history, beating guys like Jimmie Rivera and Pedro Muhnoz, submitting Cory Sandhagen.
That’s a strong run by any standards.
But even then, I just didn’t think it would be enough to see him make the necessary improvements to beat a guy like Yan.
But on fight night, Sterling stuck to his strengths - played off Yan’s tendency to start slow - and edged him out in an otherwise uneventful round 1 before then switching it up with a heavy wrestling approach in the second and third - winning the rounds he needed to sway the judges.
And for as much as I am a huge believer in Petr Yan’s merits as one of the two or three most skillful fighters in the sport today - basically what I discussed in my fight week video on the subject - it did seem likely that the best route to victory against him - at least for now - would be to get an early lead - and through his ability to edge him out in the first and utilise his major strengths in the second and third - Aljo managed to beat the consensus greatest bantamweight on the planet.
And it’s one hell of an achievement.
An Inevitable Trilogy?
I think I would favour Yan in a third fight - mainly because of the fact that he did look out of sorts - not focussed to the same extent - and some might say sloppy in certain exchanges.
Perhaps it was down to him lacking his corner, maybe he underestimated Aljo - like the rest of us - and perhaps as the fight wore on - he felt the speed of takedown and transition coming back at him - coupled with Sterling’s ability to control him from the back - perhaps these were factors.
But either way, this, in my eyes, was a closely contested but highly impressive victory from Aljamain Sterling - a win over one of the most formidable fighters in the sport today that came as a result of an astute approach to a solid gameplan - one that showed a level of discipline and variety that no-one else in the UFC has been able to bring to the table against Yan.
And I can’t help but be happy for Sterling - I mean, the joking was always going to come to the forefront - especially in the world we live in today - but even though I didn’t pick him to beat Petr Yan, I never discounted his skills as an elite talent.
If anything, his own legacy as a great bantamweight has really never been in a stronger position.
So even if you scored it for Yan - understand just how difficult it is to bring a fighter like Yan to such a narrow margin.
If that doesn’t earn your respect … I dunno.
What's next for the Champ?
I would enjoy seeing Sterling fall into less of a heel role next time around through a matchup against TJ Dillashaw. I feel like virtually anyone in that top-10 would look like a hero beside the controversial former champ.
And, of course, given that he never actually lost his title - the narrative pretty much writes itself.
It would also be one hell of a matchup - with both men having realistic routes to victory.
And, look, I’ll hold off on making any early picks on that one - I’d really need to dive deeper into both and make sure I’m not going off recency bias - but either way, Aljo has an opportunity to reinvent himself as a champion now.
That has come to him through his ability to fight a better gameplan over twenty minutes than one of the best fighters of the era.
And as much as I loved the jokes - Sterling has done enough to make this victory the focus of our attention.